While this article was written from experiences with trout, it also applies to freshwater predator fish that prefer cool water and hunt by sight. All of you smallmouth bass, pike and muskie enthusiasts will gain just as much knowledge as the dyed-in-the-wool trout fisherman will. You also don't need to fish with flies; this knowledge is just as effective with your favorite spoon, plug or spinner etc.
Many fishermen don't put their rods away at the first hint of frost. They know about the tendency of fish to feed heavily on snails during fall months. Some of my largest trout have been caught during autumn with snail imitations. These fish sound and feel like a bag of walnuts as I run my hand carefully along their stomachs. Another indication of fish feeding on snails is a reddened vent where waste is removed. It is irritated and enlarged as it must be uncomfortable passing a snail shell!
As the weather cools and days grow shorter, habits of fish change as well. The prolific insect hatches of summer are over so fish modify their feeding behavior. In many of the shallower weed-filled lakes and reservoirs, snails become the focus of fish racing to gain fat and energy reserves for winter.
Not every lake has significant snail populations. Snails tend toward bodies of water where they can scrape algae off rocks and rooted vegetation. Look for snails on weeds, floating in the water, or shells along the shore. If you do not see snails, then your fall fishing should focus on emulating other prey such as bait fish or some of the secondary insects such as water boatmen.
Fall is the time when water cools and the algae populations die back. During the unpredictable weather of fall, where it may blow a gale one day and be calm and sunny the next, the cool clean water blown to the downwind shorelines can be very rich in forage as well as very conducive to trout. Last night's storm may have dislodged thousands of big, juicy, energy packed snails to the downwind shoreline. You will know it when you walk the beach and see the shells there and notice them in the water as well. Things will seem quite uneventful until you hear the first explosion of a huge trout pulling a helpless snail off the surface. You may think it was a fluke until five minutes later it happens again. Then you begin to take notice.
Lakes are often expansive and intimidating in size. Where should you focus your efforts if you think fish are feeding on snails? The answer is to follow the wind. Try fishing the downwind shores of lakes because they accumulate food and fish. In the summer however, the downwind areas tend to accumulate gill-clogging algae for trout and the warmer water often keeps trout away. This tactic will work for warm water gamefish in the summer.
You may be paddling along in your float tube and notice a few snails seemingly trapped in the neuston or surface film. At times snails will actually hang upside down and graze on the biotic minutia that is trapped in the surface film of the water. It isn't the best survival strategy when large fish are in the vicinity. You also don't usually see a snail every couple of square feet either. When you see them, they stick out like a desert oasis. Fish see these and ATTACK! There is too much food at risk for them to casually slurp large snails. They usually go down with the force of a dump truck.
I prefer to fish just outside of weed beds that reach the surface on the down wind shorelines. These seem to provide the best feeding habitat for the fish while also trapping the drifting snails. This is where the snail's pace comes into play. You already know these animals don't exactly cut a wake when they move. You will be dead drifting in the breeze. To improve the speed of your fishing action, tie a lighter leader to the hook bend and use your snail pattern for a strike indicator for a dropper. I prefer around a 3x tippet to the snail because of the brute force of the strikes, and a much lighter 5x or so down to a small nymph. Something like a pheasant tail nymph or a scud works well to entice trout at least.
OK so what about fly patterns? I have heard of some people tying chenille or using puffs of antron yarn. Experiment to find an imitation of your local snails. Some are cone shaped while others are formed like a cinnamon role. Usually the biggest problem is getting enough room between the body of the fly and the hook point for the hook to set into the fishes' jaw. Where I fish here in Oregon, I run into the flat cinnamon roll shape most of the time. I use foam cord-like material and carefully spiral the cord on the top of a streamer hook and secure it with thread. Use head cement between spirals for a more durable fly. Use panatone markers to match the brown, green, and yellow hues of the local snails. If your snails are more cone-shaped, you may want to experiment with variations on the woolly worm theme. These may also be imitated with a cone of antron yarn, or a clipped, dear-hair body similar to the head of a muddler minnow. My next experiment will be to attempt to spin antron yarn like a muddler head. I like the sheen of the antron because it more closely represents the snail's shiny shell while remaining light in weight and water-resistant. I am always looking for new ideas to imitate these very important, yet largely overlooked forage for game fish. I hope this discussion will inspire some inventive fly tiers.
Fishing snail patterns may not burn up the record books for numbers of fish caught, but when a ten pounder SHOCKS you back to life, you will remember that one fish above all others until you dust off your tackle next spring. Not such a bad way to lead into winter I think!
Editors note: Bradden Kerr is the Senior Fishery Biologist at Spring Creek Aquatic Concepts www.AquaHabitat.com, and the technical adviser for the book Big Trout. Spring Creek designs, builds and provides management consulting for some of North America's most productive and aesthetically beautiful fishing ponds, lakes and streams.
Reprint allowed by permission of the author with the inclusion of a link to AquaHabitat.com.
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